The Prospects for a Russian Occupation of Ukraine: How it will go and how will it end?
David Edelstein, Georgetown University
There are good reasons to expect that any prospective Russian occupation of Ukraine will be unsuccessful from the point of view of the occupier. By unsuccessful, I mean simply that Russia is unlikely to achieve any political ambition it may have of transforming the Ukrainian state – its leadership and its interests. As I have argued elsewhere, the key to the relatively small number of military occupations that have succeeded historically is the presence of a third-party external threat from which the occupied population values protection. To the extent that an occupying power can provide that protection, the occupied population will tolerate the presence of occupying forces in their homeland. Thus, the key to the oft-cited successful occupations of West Germany and Japan after the Second World War was the presence of a third-party threat – the Soviet Union or at least Soviet-inspired Communism – from which the United States could provide protection. The occupied populations did not relish the continuing presence of foreign troops, but they relished less the prospect of living in a state dominated by the Soviet Union.
Without such a third-party external threat, occupations are far less likely to succeed. When such a threat is absent, the nationalist inclinations of the occupied population are likely to result in their quickly growing weary of living under the thumb of a foreign occupier. And the occupying power itself is likely to begin to question the continuing commitment of resources to an occupation that may have little prospect of success. But one thing that history has demonstrated is that the sustained commitment of substantial resources over a lengthy period of time is required for any occupation to be successful. This applies even when there is an external threat, as a substantial commitment by the occupier is necessary to offer credible protection to the occupied population. This combination of an occupied population’s impatience with continued occupation and the occupying power’s impatience to bring an end to its costly occupation creates conditions under which most occupations are ultimately unlikely to succeed.
All of which brings us to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. From the outset, there has been little reason to expect that a Russian occupation of Ukraine would be successful. By all indications, the vast majority of the Ukrainian leadership and population did not welcome Russian protection from any third-party threat. To the contrary, the leadership and population was seeking protection – reflected in its interest in potentially joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – from the threat posed by Russia. A more limited incursion into the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region might more conceivably have had the preconditions for success, but even in these eastern regions of Ukraine, the aggressive Russian prosecution of the war has done little to persuade the local population that Russia is protecting them from an external threat from the central Ukrainian state.
If the above analysis and prognosis is correct, then the next important question to ask is how a Russian occupation of Ukraine is likely to progress from the moment at which Moscow recognizes that its occupation has stalled or is unlikely to achieve any transformative goals in Ukraine. Based on how other occupying powers have reacted after failing to achieve their initial aims, I would suggest that there are four possible strategies that Russia seems most likely to pursue:
First, Moscow might choose to double-down. In this strategy, the occupying power opts to commit additional resources – both money and troops – to the occupation in the hope that a commitment of resources might improve the prospects for the occupation. Occupiers in the past, including the United States in Iraq – have been convinced that occupation success could be achieved simply by increasing the resources committed to a struggling occupation. The challenge to this argument is that additional resources do little to mitigate the political dynamics that make an occupation so difficult. In fact, they may only exacerbate them.
The second strategy available to the political leaders of a struggling occupation is to cut-and-run. In this strategy, the leadership of the occupying power, recognizing both the challenges that they are encountering and the underlying political dynamics creating those challenges, make the decision to withdraw their troops and end the occupation as quickly as possible with little thought or care for what comes after the intervention ends. Critics of such an approach will point to the disastrous consequences for the post-occupation state as well as the reputational costs of such a strategy for the former occupying power.
Third, Russia might pursue a decent interval strategy. First coined by Henry Kissinger in the context of the US difficulties in Vietnam, a decent interval strategy envisions a withdrawal that leaves a relatively stable local administration in place, so that the occupying power will not be blamed for any instability that comes later. The occupying power is able to claim victory and withdraw with a strategy for maintaining its reputation. Skeptics of such an approach point not only to the immorality of such an approach but also to its unrealistic assumptions. As in the case of Vietnam, it is unlikely that an unsuccessful occupying power will be able to avoid responsibility for instability that comes later.
Finally, Russia might adopt a simmering stew strategy. In such a strategy, the goal is not necessarily to fully end an occupation or intervention, but rather simply to turn the heat down. Under such a strategy, the occupying power makes less effort to exert overall political authority and relies instead on more covert and unconventional means to maintain its influence on the occupied territory. The advantage for Russia of such a strategy is that it might allow it to continue to exert its influence both in the Donbas and other occupied regions and, to some extent, over the country as a whole, without the same level of international attention that has resulted in the sanctions it currently faces.
This last strategy seems to be the most likely option that Russia will adopt going forward, in order to avoid both an increased resource commitment that the country can hardly afford as well as the humiliation of an obvious public withdrawal. At the same time, it might allow Russia to achieve more limited aims in the Donbas through the continued use of covert means that might not garner as much attention in international headlines. The unfortunate takeaway, then, is as unsuccessful as Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has been, the most likely strategy for Russia to pursue is not one that necessarily brings the war to a quick end.
David M. Edelstein, Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation, Cornell University Press, 2008.
Cover picture: Bucha main street after Russian invasion of Ukraine, Oleksandr Ratushniak